News & Opinion

Kerfuffle in Korea: Golf rules need equity

Although it’s sometimes inconvenient, often confusing and at times seemingly unfair, we can’t play golf without the rules.

Even when we don’t know how to enforce them evenly and fairly.

Over the weekend, a rules kerfuffle in Korea was so outlandish and outrageous as to baffle any reasonable person or the most experienced rules expert.

At the KB Financial Star Championship on the Korean LPGA, it was difficult for players to determine the difference between green and fringe on several holes. After Thursday’s first round, KLPGA officials administered two-shot penalties to Hye-jin Choi and You-na Park for illegally marking their balls. The players thought they were on the green, when in fact they were on the fringe. Choi was the tournament leader at 6 under par before the penalty.

Later, KLPGA officials discovered that four other players inadvertently had committed the same offense. And this is where the trouble began.

Officials decided not to penalize the four other players and to rescind the penalties on Choi and Park. The players held a contentious meeting Thursday night. Some players threatened to walk out unless the penalties were enforced. Others said they would quit unless the penalties were withdrawn.

In an unprecedented move, officials decided to wipe out the entire first round over the matter. And the fallout included the resignation of top KLPGA rules official Jin-ha Choi.

Have you ever heard of such nonsense? The closest we can come, while head-scratchingly outlandish, doesn’t come close to the Korean debacle.

You remember the four-shot penalty issued to Lexi Thompson in the final round of the ANA Inspiration in April (“4-stroke penalty stuns Thompson at ANA,” April 3, bit.ly/2nxsvFa). She incurred the penalties the day before – the day before – when she marked her ball to the side and replaced it an inch or less away from the place she marked.

She was charged a two-shot penalty for mismarking her ball (Rule 20-7c: “Playing From Wrong Place”) and two shots for signing for a lower score (Rule 6-6d: “Wrong Score for Hole”). And here’s the crime: She was told about the penalty in the middle of her final round. She went from leading Suzann Pettersen by two shots to being behind by two.

“Is this a joke?” a stunned Thompson said to LPGA rules official Sue Witters.

Yes, it was a joke but not the funny kind. Thompson ended up losing the ANA in a playoff to So Yeon Ryu.

The USGA and the R&A acted as swiftly as they are able to address this situation. In Decision 34-3/10, the use of video evidence is limited. The infraction has to be able to be seen by the naked eye. And it will apply “reasonable judgment” when determining where to replace a ball. Which means that rules officials can’t use television’s super slo-mo and ultra-magnification to determine a penalty.

The two governing bodies have proposed a number of wide-ranging rules changes to take effect Jan. 1, 2019. The core rules would be reduced from 34 to 24. Some of the most visible changes:

Most water hazards would be marked red, to simplify a penalty drop.

In a nod to an infamous moment involving the eventual winner in the 2016 U.S. Open, the “Dustin Johnson rule” would take away the penalty for a player causing his or her ball to move. The standard was that the weight of the evidence determined it was more likely than not that the player caused the ball to move. In 2019, it would take virtual certainty – 95 percent – to incur a penalty.

Caddies no longer would be allowed to stand behind a player to line up a shot. A golfer would be able to putt with the flagstick in the hole. And a golfer would be allowed only three minutes instead of five to search for a lost ball.

What is not addressed in the proposed rules changes is officials’ ability to alter a scorecard after it has been signed and accepted. Rules officials should not be able to assess penalties and change a scorecard after that day’s close of play.

That remains the most unfair method of applying the rules. In the rules, the concept of “equity” means that every player in the field should be treated equally. If they would just leave the scorecard alone, we wouldn’t need to wipe out an entire tournament round. Or prevent a deserving player from winning a major championship.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf